Posted by: facetothewind | February 25, 2015

Prisms of My Past Life

David-Gilmore-photography-White-Sands

Prisms of My Past Life

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

I have been fractured
By the exquisite knife edge
Of love’s sharp blade
And all the wholeness I build,
Or march toward
Eludes me
While whispering promises
Of rest and peace.

I raise my voice in anguish
Trying to drown out
The despair’s high pitched
Keening wail
And realize my cries for help
Aren’t heard because
I haven’t released them
From my heart

What I know disappears
And I am forced to stand
In the shifting sands
Of the unknowable
Unknown

And the light
That I thought
Illuminated
My crystalline
shimmering selfhood
was actually,
always and
forever
me

Posted by: facetothewind | February 19, 2015

Random Shots in a Crowd

And the beauty of a well-cropped image

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So it’s Chinese New Year all around the world and while Chuan is off collecting his red packets of money and eating fishy foods with aunties and uncles, I took the opportunity of a national holiday to do a little walking tour with my camera. I went to Masjid Jamek (“masjid” means mosque) here in Kuala Lumpur. I ran immediately into a fantastic photo shoot: an all male crowd of foreign workers milling about a plaza on their day off. There was not a Chinese or a red envelope among them — mostly Bangladeshi and Pakistani. I deduced this because many of them were holding hands, an acceptable expression of friendship here in Malaysia (but don’t let there be love between the men or it’s a punishable offense). Anyway, they were waiting to send money to their home countries through the money transfer stations…

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There was the odd white tourist passing through nervously. Everyone in the crowd was about 4 inches shorter than me, perfectly well-behaved, and not at all fragrant as some would expect. So I felt perfectly comfortable to just ease through the crowd with my camera snapping away at the thousands of handsome men in their Sunday best (even though it’s Thursday) their black hair all neatly coiffed as if they were going to meet some women (dream on). They weren’t the super-smiley crowd which makes ME smile. I just can’t stand when people do the little peace sign and pose for the camera.

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I never set out with a theme in photography, I just let a theme reveal itself. Sometimes nothing surfaces at all and I go home empty-handed. But today it became clear to me that random black and white shots in the crowd with the expectation of heavy editing back at home would be the theme and so I just went with it. With the unpredictable nature of a dynamic crowd, it’s pointless to wait for the right moment ala Cartier-Bresson, whose philosophies of photography I usually follow. But today, a random shot into the crowd produces this…

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And with post-production, this is what I present to you…

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Random shot…

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Cropped (still don’t like the elbow in the left, but what can I do?)…

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This…

Cropping a photo 3

Becomes this…

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I find that the best random shots are the ones where there’s some direct eye contact with me. And usually because I’m white and wear a fun hat, someone’s got their eyes on me. Without any eye contact with the camera, it can seem a little too disconnected.

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But sometimes the focal point may not be someone looking at me, but rather someone central looking at someone else as in this case…

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And here as well where there is direct eye contact with the camera but also someone looking at someone else. The viewer’s eye naturally will follow their gaze and that gives the photo a sense of drama and a possible story or two…

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Click to enlarge.

Another thing is that if you shoot at a fairly low shutter speed, you’ll get a nice motion blur in the foreground and in this case it worked out because the central figure was standing still and so he’s crisp. What I ended up with was a circular motion around the central figure. You can feel the buzz of the crowd…

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Click to enlarge.

Here I liked seeing the texture of the men’s hair in the sunlight as they watched a woman in a wet t-shirt at a dunking machine…

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And this is just on the way home in front of Masjid Jamek…

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Behind my building a guy contemplates fishing from the filthy river. Don’t do it guy, I saw someone pooping in it.

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Happy new year to all my lovely Chinese friends and extended family. This is the 4th new year in 7 months, so no more new years until this summer.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 9, 2015

Grabby Krabi

Any visit to Thailand is likely going to include a few things: cheap and sumptuous food, excellent massages, tip-hungry lady boys prowling the streets, throngs of Chinese tourists on their first trip out of China, and a new crop of Ingrish. So here it is, all that and more…the blog entry about my latest trip to Thailand. This trip was to Krabi — a small town on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, on the Andaman Sea, just north of Malaysia. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? It’s a short and super cheap (US$30) flight from Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia, so gee, how could I not be tempted to go?

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I’m gonna call Krabi Grabby because of the following incidents:

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After a $3 piña colada (or was it two), I was happily walking the streets alone on the eve of my 51st birthday and there I saw them in all their ersatz splendor: lady boy drag queens. Wow, what tits — even as a gay man noticed them! Thai modesty goes right out the window when it comes to lady boy drag queens whose bodices were not really covering their boobs, if you get a side glance. Is this because, frankly, their tits are not really mammary glands…they’re a guy’s pecs with hormones and implants? So by that definition it’s not indecent to have them pop out in public. Really, I don’t mind, I’m just asking.

What is indecent is how aggressive they are with their demands for tips. And for what, just standing around in a dress? They were promoting a cabaret show the following evening and so I took a flyer and cheerfully said I would come. I love a good cheap drag show and a bad cocktail. Then they insisted on taking my picture with them. And somehow I lost my seasoned travel smarts and agreed…must’ve been the cocktail. Snap, snap and next thing they’re demanding a tip. I told them I would come to their show and tip them tomorrow. Nothing doing. The one in white grabbed me with her nails digging into my arm, “Teeeeeep! Give teeeeeep!!” I repeated that I would see their show and I’m not tipping anyone for doing nothing. Their tone was getting very masculine and I started realizing this would get ugly so I wiggled out of White Witch’s claws and started hoofing it outta there when Pinky la Witch enclosed her talons around the straps of my backpack and pulled me backward toward to group, who I swear were going to reach into my pocket and help themselves to a tip. I swatted at her hand like one would a fly and bolted.

Next stop in Grabby, was a massage.

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This therapist is NOT the one mentioned in the below story of unseemly massage therapist behavior. The lady boy pictured above was quite professional and did a great job. Read on for something a little less legit…

I walked along the street looking for just the right massage shop and passed various women, old and young, hawking their massage services. “Massah Mistah?” No thank you, too girly. Shop looks creepy. No ladies, I’m not straight, and I don’t want a sex massage even when you smile and look longingly into my wallet. And then I passed a lithe young man who seemed to be amidships in some stage of his lady boy transformation with his hair in a little bun and face whitener smeared sloppily on. He looked a big haggard and I felt a little sorry for him and so I agreed to be his next victim, er, massage client. Rule number one: pity is not a good reason to choose a massage therapist, or really anyone for that matter. So he was somewhere in the middle of the oil massage when he started coming on to me. Next thing I know he’s got the towel off me and saying, “I give you happy ending. You give me teeeep.” Oh dear, not again. “No thank you, don’t want,” I told him. He tapped me with the back of his hand and held it out for a tip and kept insisting on giving me the happy ending I didn’t want. “Umm, NO! Don’t want!” Then I had to add a few more exclamation points and yank my towel back up in order to get my point across. Again, I ended up practically running down the street with this dude coming after me. I still felt sorry for him.

I regained my street smarts remembering to keep my distance from drag queens and don’t even make eye contact with hawkers. Then I lost it again.

The snorkeling tour from hell…

Years ago traveling in Thailand with Sebastian, we went on some little adventure tour packages and Thai cooking adventure trips. Here’s what these tours mostly are:

  1. You pay a chunk of money to your hotel who gets a nice cut of the booking and promises the tour will deliver a lot more than it does.
  2. They pick you up in a stinky open air bus or pickup truck with no cushions or shock absorbers.
  3. They drive you around and around for an hour stopping at every hotel to pick up more suckers…I mean wide-eyed tourists.
  4. Finally when the bus can take no more people, they add a few more to the front seat next to the driver and on the bumper of the truck.
  5. You arrive at your destination with several pounds of carbon monoxide in your lungs and your bones beaten up from the lack of shock absorption.
  6. Now you’re ready for your big adventure, so please wait here.
  7. You wait.
  8. You wait some more while your bladder is swelling to uncomfortable proportions because it’s now 90 minutes since you left your hotel.
  9. You board the boat which is actually nicer than you’d imagined at this point, don your lifejacket and the boat goes speeding off into the wild blue to…
  10. PICK UP MORE PEOPLE at their hotel’s docks. Two more stops and the boat is now full. The huge guy across from us is shoved to the end of his bench seat and half of him is hanging off the seat.
  11. Then the tour guide gives his announcement in broken English that we won’t be going to See Island because of some tidal problem (see brochure below)IMG_1398
  12. We arrive at Tup Island, the island paradise we were hoping for, and in fact we find about 800 mainland Chinese tourists on an island the size of my apartment. Our boat was sandwiched in between about 30 other speedboats and loud long tail boats which are essentially the Harley Davidsons of the boating world.Tub Island Krabi Thailand
  13. Chuan took off to swim shoulder-to-shoulder with the Chinese who probably had never seen the ocean before — let’s call it Beijing Beach. I lost my good humor and sat in the shade with chubby kids stepping on me and people clearing their throats loudly and yelling across the island and doing selfies with jumps and peace signs and spraying sunscreen over the top of me. My blood was boiling because I was so stupid to have gotten suckered. I decided to give some feedback to the tour guide, “Why bring us here? This not nice. Too many people. No fun.” “Get your own private boat,” was his answer. That was more than the usual about face you get from Thai people when you complain. And somehow I appreciated what he said, because it was true. We should have gotten a private boat.
  14. Finally it was time to leave and head for snorkeling, which is why we went on this trip in the first place. So they take us to another spot with about 20 other speedboats dropping anchor right onto what was once a coral reef (anchors and coral don’t get along) and tell us “OK, 30 minutes to snorkel, don’t go far from the boat.” We plunge in avoiding getting squished between boats. And behold…
  15. There are almost no fish. There are a few dozen of them around the boat waiting for tips…I mean food…to be dropped from the sides. But really, once you leave the boat, there are about 3 other fish. Grrrr. I found myself wishing I were back in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands where I was surrounded with swarms of colorful fish. But it gets worse…
  16. We do a quickie drive by Chicken Island so he could say that we covered that part promised in the tour brochure. And then it’s on to the lunch which from past experience I knew was going to be fried rice. Today it was one small fried chicken leg and some white rice and we are dumped on another small island with 70 speedboats (someone counted) carrying about 30 persons each. You do the math.
  17. Well let’s just say I counted the minutes to being back in the hotel with a beer and my earplugs, 800 Thai baht (per person) poorer. I was stupid — I learned this lesson long ago: don’t waste money on these tours. Do your own hike, your own adventure. Find a taxi or a boat and make your own agenda. These tourist torture ventures seem to be a way for Thai people to settle the score of economic differences between their poor country and your presumably rich one without just asking for teeeeeeps! Either way, it’s giving something and not getting much or anything in return. And that never feels good.

At last Thailand delivers…

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Here’s the sumptuous food that Thailand is famous for. The fried snapper with coconut milk sauce and veggies. It was absolutely fantastic! This is at The Massaman restaurant in Ao Nang town.

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Railay Beach — at low tide you can wade around the cliff from Ao Nang. It’s just delightful, but…

Monkeys-Krabi

watch out for the cheeky monkeys! I witnessed the monkeys raiding a tourist’s bag and stealing their iPhone. He held it under his arm like a briefcase and took off onto the cliffs. I wondered what he was going to do with it or why he took THAT of all things? A fearless and amused Thai guy jumped up on the rocks and grabbed its tail. The monkey threw the phone and the owner retrieved it. I bet it was gonna go online and order a gun and a case of bananas from GrubHub.

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The wide beach of Ao Nang at low tide. Just try to ignore the raw sewage flowing into the sea at one end of the beach.

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Ao Nang. Peaceful after the long-tail boats are finished revving their engines for the evening.

Here’s a little video encapsulation of Krabi:

And here’s a little photo gallery featuring some new Ingrishis signs I found. You can click on one and advance through them with your arrow button to see the captions…

Would I go back to Krabi? Nah. It didn’t grab me. It’s more of a transfer point for the islands than a destination, in my opinion. It has its charms but other places have more of what I’m looking for as an antidote to the stresses of Kuala Lumpur.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 3, 2015

Out and About

Kuala-Lumpur-sunrise

I get up early to service California clients before they leave the office for the day. This is what I wake up to. It twinkles from afar.

I sort of resolved that to survive KL, one has to get out of KL as often as possible (scroll down to previous blog entry). So I’ve been doing some little trips out of the city to Ipoh and Malacca (aka Melaka) both with and without Chuan. Here are some of the photos of the past few weeks as Chinese New Year fast approaches…

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I booked the single room at the Café 1511 Guesthouse in Malacca. It was built in the 1896 as the servants’ quarters of a bigger mansion.

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My tiny room was US$22. The roundtrip bus fare from KL (2-hours each way) is about US$5. So for $37, I got to have a really nice little weekday escape from KL’s madness. The room was perfectly comfortable with aircon. No windows made it especially quiet.

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Chinese New Year is big in Malacca as it is mostly Chinese who live there. The holiday itself isn’t until the 19th but the city streets are already tricked out with red lanterns and everywhere is the sound of tacky (but kinda fun) new year’s music. Seems there’s a new year’s celebration every few months in Malaysia. I’ve witnessed 3 already and I’ve only been here 6 months.

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There’s one spot in town called Harmony Street because it has an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple.

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There’s a bit of a melange of chanting coming from the various locations.

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I visited my friend Dennis who grew up here but now lives in Oslo, Norway. It was fun to see his delight in how the town has improved and the river walk renovated.

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I can’t say I really like the food of Malacca yet. I haven’t done an exhaustive search for food to my taste, but when the Hard Rock Café looks to have the best menu, things are not good. Fish ball soup and Nyonya laksa (curry laksa) are probably the most popular and ubiquitous dishes in Malacca. And I can’t say I like either of them. If you grow up eating it, I guess I can understand it…I mean I eat blue cheese and honestly, it smells nasty but I love it.

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Curry laksa or Nyonya Laksa which is overspiced, oily, full of unidentified processed fish cakes/balls and usually a hard boiled egg thrown on top.

I’ve been zeroing in on what tastes and smells so bad in the food I’ve eaten in Malaysia. And here it is…

The culprit of the unpleasant smell of food in Malaysia.

The culprit of the unpleasant smell of food in Malaysia.

Belacan (the c is pronounced “ch”) is to blame for that stinky aroma surrounding restaurants here. It’s fermented shrimp paste and it’s in a LOT of foods here. It smells bad, tastes bad, and depending on the brand, can be full of the banned (but still in use) cancer-causing food dye Rhodamine B.

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And well, if you have to rush to the toilet after your over-spiced fishy meal, you might as well enjoy the very groovy one above at Restoran Paranakan — what I think had the best food in town…simple and nicely done bok choy and tofu. No nonsense and no belacan!

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Malacca is a charming place and I intend to be on that bus as often as possible. They’ve had the good sense not to tear down all their old buildings and put in malls. But isn’t it telling that they build this beautiful river walk and there’s no one using it. Dennis and I walked along it and saw very few people until it passed by a horrid modern shopping center that was plunked down right next to a historic Malay village. Of course IT was full of people.

Melaka-Malacca

Here’s a little video encapsulation of the past month or so in KL:

Onward to Ipoh. 

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The classic and crumbling old Kuala Lumpur Station. Hardly used now since they built the new hideousness called KL Sentral. I chose this one as our departure station instead of the new one. You can see how popular history over modernity is.

Chu and I took the train to Ipoh this last weekend. It’s supposed to be a 2-hour ride but turned into nearly 3 as we lost power half way there and sat on the tracks eating leftover home made carrot cake and pumpkin soup.

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All it would take would be a little tap of the sledge hammer at the right spot in that archway and this whole building will come down. Stand back!

Ipoh isn’t as charming or as preserved as Malacca.

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It might be one day, but it’s still kind of scruffy and crumbling and is a mix of modern and old that don’t quite work together very well. It appears to have no city planning department. Catch it before it crumbles.

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Though lacking in the architectural charm of Malacca, it has better food and a hip patronage passing through on their way to Penang perhaps, or on an eating binge from KL. This is the very vintagey Burps and Giggles restaurant in old town Ipoh…

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Their food is pretty good. Some of it is excellent — mostly Western food but it draws a mostly hip Malaysian Chinese clientele. We had a great soft shell crab burger, a rubbery chicken burger, a really nice cheese cake and pistachio gelato with caramelized apples. I also had the fish and chips. It was a Western eating binge to try and fatten myself up a bit. (Everyone seems to think I’m too skinny weighing in at 62.5 kilos = 138 pounds.)

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This is at the Happy Eight restaurant where we went for Chuan’s birthday dinner. I had really good spaghetti with chicken meatballs and he had the seafood carbonara pasta. Both were very nicely done and the space quite fascinating as we sat on top of a fish pond with fish swimming below our feet.

Ipoh also has Plan B – one of the Big Group’s restaurants. The Big Group is to Malaysia what McMenamins is to Portland, Oregon, USA. They like to buy up old buildings and repurpose them and serve mediocre food in a cool setting. Their service is always excellent and so that and the fun atmospheres they create sort of make up for what they lack culinarily. We tried to order a Mojito. Sorry can’t do it. How about a Manhattan? Couldn’t find the sweet vermouth. Then they couldn’t find soda water to make the high ball. So I had a beer. For the trouble they gave us free snacks and birthday cake for Chuan. So all was forgiven and we fed the too-chewy chicken snacks they brought us to the stray cats in the alley on the way back to the hotel.

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Happy 28th birthday, Chuan!

 And a few parting glances…

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Public sign which reads: no improper conduct. You should see the violence shown on Malaysian TV but the love scenes are all edited out.

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Too bad. Love isn’t improper.

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We tried to go to the Hindu festival Thaipusam at the Batu Caves but we couldn’t get on the trains…not even room for skinny me. But they sure looked like they were having fun. We finally left the train station at 1am and went home. :(

Next stop: Krabi, Thailand for MY birthday!

Posted by: facetothewind | January 29, 2015

This Body

David-Gilmore-photography

This Body

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

This body belongs not to me
It belongs to time-
an illusion that acts
slowly or quickly to
nip
and chip
at the
integrity of the temporary
forms that have evolved to know
the greatness of
the void
the fullness of space
the constant attraction and repellants
of magnetism, gravity
and what we call
love.

And though linear time is a construct
of the other beings before and next to me;
A shared co-creation that has
no foothold in the entirety of existence,
It still holds sway over
this constricted view,
this limited perception:
People, things, creatures, places,
all pop in and out
of here and now
and feelings of loss and gratitude
can sweep away full lifetimes
of knowing this.

Posted by: facetothewind | January 26, 2015

Kuala Lumpur: the good, the bad, the ugly.

I’ve been here in Kuala Lumpur for 6 months now. So this is my 6-month check up, check in, valuation of all things good and bad…

The Big Bad Things (what I truly hate about KL):

1. The gross disregard for pedestrians. IMG_1234IMG_1176 Simply put, KL is not a walking city. It’s a driving city. And that leaves the streets noisy, congested, and the air polluted. But for those few of us weirdoes who do like to walk, it’s an endless obstacle course to avoid falling into a hole or having to go around cars and motorbikes left on the sidewalk with complete disregard for those on foot. 2. The garbage. IMG_1179 People in KL are, frankly, pigs. (So are white trash in America in case you think I’m just picking on this poor country.) They throw their garbage everywhere which causes the city to smell like a giant vinegary turd. The rivers are full of garbage floating by on the way to the ocean. It’s unbelievable how people can be so disrespectful of their own environment. And it is why we have number 4… 4. Rats. rats The rat population of KL is estimated to be 4x that of the human population. I’ve seen them jumping up on food stall counters. I saw a street food stall operator bonk one on the head with a pan and drop it into the sewer by its tail. Did he wash his hands after this? I doubt it. I’ve seen a rat go by my feet in a nice restaurant. In my opinion it’s because of the garbage that is just carelessly thrown on the sidewalk — it provides and easy and constant source of nutrition for them. In 2013, there were 3,000 cases of leptospirosis (rat urine disease) reported, and nearly 30 fatalities that year. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed and spent 6 weeks in the hospital where he nearly died. He will be on medication the rest of his life. 5. The bad food. IMG_0893 That may not look bad but it’s frozen peas, frozen carrots, over-spiced, and fishy. And that’s the cheap food. The expensive food — well that’s a whole other category. Just last night I had a Norwegian salmon fillet that cost me 40 RM (about $13). That’s a fairly pricey meal in Malaysia. And within an hour I had a pretty significant case of diarrhea. Fine restaurants are staffed with foreign workers – mostly from Bangladesh and the Philippines. And they don’t speak English terribly well and are often untrained in hospitality. So my guess is someone didn’t wash their hands before placing my lovely piece of salmon atop a bed of greens which were probably also not washed. Grrrrr. Somehow just over the border, Thai people with the same ingredients came up with a world class cuisine that Malaysians seem to have bungled. And I’ve never been sick in Thailand. Chuan has worked tirelessly to find some decent restaurants for us to go to. There are a couple of them. But in a city of this size, only a couple is pretty sad. 6. The bad driving. car Malaysia has the distinction of being one of the worst in the world when it comes to annual road fatalities…24 per 100,000 vs 4 in developed nations. I am continually astounded by the driving horrors I see. Motorcyclists riding with no hands, or lying flat on their bellies with feet extended out behind them at high speeds,weaving recklessly, driving the wrong way on a one-way street, routinely driving through intersections and stop signs, driving on sidewalks. Unbelievable. It’s as if someone gave a bunch of monkeys keys to the car. I spoke to a trauma surgeon at a local hospital and he said you wouldn’t believe the road pizza he sees on a daily basis. Yes I would believe it. 7. Traffic congestion. ISARally-010809-Jam01 Because I’m primarily a public transit user, I have little right to complain about traffic. But it becomes my problem when I have to wade through it and inhale it and listen to it.

 The Little Bad Things (not deal breakers individually but they do add up):

1. People eating with their fingers (OK, it’s a tradition but it seems uncivilized for a nation trying to be world class.) IMG_1062 2. People who push onto a crowded subway before letting passengers off. It’s selfish and it’s the norm. I now just plow right through them and knock them out of the way. LRT 3. Unruly cigarette smokers. People will smoke right in front of no smoking signs. And where do you think the butts go? Of course. Into the street which end up in the river and then on the beach in a couple of days. 4. Saudis expats and tourists. By and large they are not friendly, they all smoke, and honestly I feel sorry for the women running around in full black burkas in oppressive tropical heat while their husbands walk around in shorts and flip flops. saudi 5. Broken shit. It seems Malaysians can’t fix anything. They can build things with amazing speed but when it comes to maintenance, it’s mostly just spraying a little air freshener or waving the dusting feather. And then comes the Out of Order sign. Truth in labeling, it should say ‘FOREVER’ at the bottom.

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The machines in my gym have been broken for months. I’ve complained several times and I always get the same answer: “Oh will be fixed next week.” Yeah.

6. Fruit flies. I cannot get rid of them. 7. Hot and humid weather. Well, it’s the tropics. What do you expect? It is what it is.

The Big Good Things:

1. Chuan, my boyfriend. He’s why I came here and a good 75% of why I’ve stayed. His generosity of spirit and loving kindness toward me continue to humble me. He’s being a good sport putting up with my trashing his city. (But I think he agrees.) DSC04004 2. Excellent and cheap medical care…the remaining 25%. I thought Thai health care was excellent but Malaysia’s is even better. It’s a small fraction of what you’d pay in the US and I’ve never waited more than 3 minutes to see a doc at the state of the art hospital Tung Shin. Tung Shin has Western and Chinese medicine sides joined together in a full East-meets-West medical complex. Just walk in and be seen. Amazing.

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A full comprehensive medical checkup at one of the premiere hospitals costs $108 USD and includes full blood and urine tests, ECG, ultrasound, chest x-ray and 2 doctor consultations.

3. English! Widely spoken with strong accent and a ‘la’ put at the end of most sentences. Still it’s mostly intelligible. 4. AirAsia’s hub at KLIA…because, the best view of KL is in the rearview mirror. I can walk out my door, jump on the train and be at the airport in 50 minutes and then I can get a $35 flight to Thailand for some good massages and great food. Or $150 to Hong Kong to see Sebastian and be among civilized urban dwellers for a few days. (Hopefully they will soon find the plane-gobbling monster that lives somewhere offshore of Malaysia.)

Not to mention the cute flight attendants!

Not to mention the cute flight attendants!

5. Tropical fruit. It’s cheap, abundant, and wonderful. My faves are passionfruit and pineapple. fruit 6. Alexis the jazz club bistro I insist on going to as often as possible. The music is almost always great. The service and atmosphere are excellent. The food pretty good and sometimes even great. It’s easy to forget what a hot mess it is outside when you’re seated in Alexis enjoying a drink listening to a late night jazz concert by candlelight. And smokers have their own section! IMG_9774 7. Our apartment on the 30th floor overlooking the city. How enchanting it looks from a distance with the windows closed and the aircon on. Distance does lend enchantment. So, off to Krabi, Thailand, next week and then back to the States. DSC04239

Weighing all things:

By becoming an expat American, I’ve gained affordable health care, a boyfriend, and proximity to some pretty exotic shores. What I lost leaving the US was decent sidewalks, cycling, clean food, blue skies, clean beaches, cheap alcohol, and the basics of (too much) law and order. So I’m on the fence about what to do. Seems that to survive here, I have to learn to be inured to the offenses that KL presents the minute I walk out the door…or just stay home and cook all the time. I could start by just accepting that it’s an undeveloped nation with a veneer of being developed. When you scratch the glossy surface of KL, it feels uncivilized and indecent — a corrupt country wanting a place at the international table of developed nations. But there’s a slothful and complacent mentality here that handicaps the people from attaining that. They’ll never speak up and demand anything. And so they just have to take what they get. The rich will remain corrupt and greedy and leave the poor to serve them. On the other hand, I can also remember being shot at in the States, my lackluster love life, the barking dogs, the white trash, and the exorbitant cost of health care. I’m very likely not going to return the States to live until something changes with health care and gun control. And that may not happen in my lifetime. And frankly, the United States is every bit as corrupt and rife with cronyism as Malaysia, just with the a much heavier hand of law but with the promise of ‘transparency’ and the hope to protest. And America’s got damn nice national parks. So what to do? Where to go? It’s hard being an idealist always searching for Utopia fully knowing it doesn’t exist. I’m considering re-considering Thailand as a more pleasant place to home base. I know it’s not any more organized or civilized. But at least the food’s better and the people are friendlier. Now that I have a partner, I can’t just pack up and hit the road — I have someone else to consider. Wherever and whenever I go next, I hope I can export the best part of Malaysia…my boyfriend. idealism

Posted by: facetothewind | January 15, 2015

Rhythm of Life

David Gilmore photos Myanmar poverty

Rhythm of Life
poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

Sounds go tap tapping in my heart,
worry for the suffering
working on my own version,
the world goes spinning in space

Tears splinter into glass-sharded prisms
that carry the pain I keep
running from,
the pain I carry anyway,
its heavy cries sealed in the voice
that looks for laughter
as a relief from the weight
of jagged-thorns of tender traumas

I belittle my own weakness of body,
pain-wrapped, weary wedges of
dragging through routine
while
Silhouette of Soul,
silent and serene,
hidden in the mists of loss and love
vibrating with hidden strings
plays the music of the universe
tap tapping in my heart

Posted by: facetothewind | January 6, 2015

Social Butterfly

It’s been a busy few weeks here in expatia. First, Jane and David arrived from England for New Year’s. I visited them at their home in Eastbourne, England, last summer. We met in Pai, Thailand, a year ago so this was our 2nd holiday season together. They’re not big, stinky Asian city lovers, so I wasn’t sure how long they’d last in KL. In the end, they seemed to sort of like it. They said parts of it reminded them of England. Certainly not the weather, though.

David and Jane

We spent some time going to the jazz clubs by night and by day scouring the markets for the best deals on pineapple and southeast Asian curry fixin’s. Jane proved herself to be a good market bargainer and a great cook. She got all this for 17 Ringgit (about $5 USD)…

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The two of us joined forces and made a pretty awesome Thai curry…

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Then Chuan and I took off with his 2 best buddies for Pangkor Island, about 3 hours northwest of Kuala Lumpur.

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These 3 grew up together and are now joined at the hips. I’m envious of their lifelong friendships that started so young.

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They did yoga in the sand at sunset while I photographed them.

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It was fun watching them play on the beach. I’ve gotten used to being an outsider here, but Chuan does his best to link me with his friends.

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Pangkor Island wasn’t the greatest place on earth. It has its charms, but in these photos you can’t see the trash on the beach or hear the motorcycles racing on the streets.

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Also, there was something wrong with the water — my first dip in, a fish came up to me to die in my cupped hands. And when I got out of the water, I was covered with a smelly algae that looked like it could be petroleum related. I don’t know. I went swimming anyway and in my tropical island watery reverie, I bumped into a Kotex bag. UGH!! The beaches are littered with plastic waste and frankly, find it depressing. I really feel like the planet has been irretrievably polluted. How can people be so shortsighted to destroy their own habitat? I watched children playing with garbage on the beach, throwing bottles into the sea to watch them float back and giggle…while their parents looked on. And then I found this little plastic heart in the sand…

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Probably was part of a box of chocolates or perhaps the remains of a wedding cake dumped off an excursion boat…a momentary smile for someone before going on a journey on the open sea to give a complete stranger a momentary smile. Maybe I’ll just do like the Asians and when I’m done with it, throw it in the river. Maybe someone downriver, or on a distant shore, or picking through the Pacific gyre will get a smile out of it. FYI – most plastic garbage that ends up in the sea was discarded on land and then washed to the sea by rivers, rains, and wind. In Asia, rivers are considered trash conveyor belts that take the garbage somewhere else…to your holiday beach resort. Very sad indeed…

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On the lighter side of things, in Pangkor, I did have the best double rum piña colada made with coconut cream. Hope those straws and that little umbrella were not thrown into the ocean…

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On the way home we passed some of the rural Malaysian flooding you may have heard about. I was struck by the lack of military or government assistance on the ground. We drove past house after flooded house with people just sitting in the middle of the street conducting their own traffic from their own tents. Where were the police and national guard? I guess one could have asked the same thing during hurricane Katrina in the States.

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One night last week, after a good rain, I looked out the window from my apartment and saw shimmering where once there were streets. My entire neighborhood was under 3 feet of water! The river rose up about 15 feet, flowed over the banks and left massive amounts of garbage stuck to the pickets in the railing. I could have gone boating on the streets. They drained by morning leaving a thick layer of mud.

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Plastic bags and debris caught by the railing when the river overflowed the banks.

On the way home from Pangkor Island, we stopped by the ruins of a Scottish mansion called Kellie’s Castle. A hundred years ago, a Scottish tin magnate was prancing about in a 3 piece suit and tie, bossing around a large staff of Malays. Seemed a bit out of place in the tropics but there you have it…

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Here’s the video of the weekend in Pangkor:

 

Once back in Kuala Lumpur, Chuan took me to his brother David’s food stall in Bandar Menjalara. David is a really sweet, charming, and engaging guy — much like his younger brother. Good food seems to run in the Choy family’s blood.

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David made us his specialty herbed fish and chips and garlic bread. It was delish! And David wouldn’t take our money for the lunch. Add ‘generous’ to the list of stellar qualities of the Choy family.

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David explained the financial realities of running a food stall which produces about $50 USD a day (after expenses). David and his wife live with Chuan and their mother in a 3 bedroom apartment. David’s employees make about $17 USD a day. Sometimes when I see Bentleys and Lamborghinis racing the streets of KL, I forget that Malaysia is a basically poor country. Chuan’s family don’t appear on the surface to be poor people. But by American standards they are. And by American income standards, so am I…which is one of the reasons I live in Malaysia.

That evening, Chuan took me to meet his mother for dinner. We sat in a Thai restaurant while she told me about how hard they all work. She at 62 is still working a couple part time jobs to stay afloat. She expressed her concern about Chuan’s future citing how there’s no social security for the elderly in Malaysia. She seemed to be conceding failure to me that she’s not been able to provide her son with financial security. I felt her pain. At one point I said to her, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of your son.” She didn’t seem to hear it. So I said it again a bit louder. Silently, she half winced and half smiled. I’m sure she couldn’t expect that some foreigner who just met her son a few months ago is going to follow through with a promise to take care of him. And in reality, I can’t do much more than add a little sparkle to Chuan’s life here and there. It was for me more of a declaration of what’s important to me…generosity and sharing…in whatever form that comes. America promises to take care of its poor and elderly and then it fails and people fall through the cracks. Here there are no promises or pretenses. But there is family. And chosen family — the “outlaws” I call them.

My hubby and my mother outlaw…

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And now for something completely different. Today I paid a visit to the Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Garden. It was delightful. Here’s a video of it and following that are some stills:

Click on a photo and advance through them with your left/right arrows…

Posted by: facetothewind | January 4, 2015

A January poem

 Myanmar

This Holy House

Poem by January Handl • Photo by Sebastian Bock

Lit by ethereal wonder
And painstaking patterned
Facades speaking words of
Ancient wisdom and otherworldly
Serenity
This abode of the spirit
With arched doorways
And lifted ceilings
Stain glass stairways
And rough-gilded
Mosaics of pilgrims and their journeys
Leaving light footprints
Of hope and dread
This constructed bit of worship
Pulls the heart inward
As the eyes dance in the
Dazzling devotion to
Our highest whispers of dreams
And our lowest mumbles of judgments
And forgiveness
This peaceful palace
Opens the solace joined souls
Who yearn to know
What lies just beyond
Human hands, beyond
The brain’s buzz to
The shared mind in ceremony
And righteous ritual
In a prayer of deliberate design
Feigning control
Where is truly
Only
Surrender

Posted by: facetothewind | December 23, 2014

When did YOU lose the Christmas spirit?

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Maybe you didn’t. Here’s how I lost mine…

As I sit at my desk on Christmas Eve eve in Asia, the humming air conditioner reminds me that I’m in a steamy tropical country, far from the notion of a white Christmas in the West. And if the wall of heat and humidity didn’t disabuse me of any winter wonderland fantasy I might be entertaining, then living in a Muslim country should finish it off, right? The wavering call to prayer from the mosque competes with the occasional unavoidable Christmas music that comes up on Pandora. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….BismAllaaaHHHHaaaaHHHaaaa….” Muslims are big on Christmas, actually. They do, after all believe in Jesus. And Kuala Lumpur is where Arabs come to do their Christmas shopping. So how come I’m not at the mall snapping my selfie in front of Santa and the Christmas tree?

My friend Rob and I were having an email chat about losing that childlike wonder about Christmas. Playful rumination from one bitter queen to the next, perhaps. As children we both used to take such pleasure in putting up holiday decorations. I loved it all. The music, the cookies, the Peanuts and Dr. Seuss Christmas shows, the relatives, the turkey dinner. Then there was the anticipation of the big night when we 3 boys would go to bed and pretend to be asleep while the parents quietly stuffed gifts under the tree (as if we hadn’t seen them piling up in the closet). Then late in the evening, my Italian grandmother would rattle the sleigh bells and yell, “Ho ho ho!” and we’d throw open the door and run across the blue sculpted carpet to the living room to see that “Santa” had dumped a payload of gifts beneath our plastic tree from Sears.

At some point one of us ungrateful kids would speak the unspeakable words — the sword right to the heart of any breadwinner: “Is that all?” Imagine what my poor parents must have thought. I think even I, the junior master of indelicacy, knew one shouldn’t say such a thing. But I did. Then my father would storm out of the house pissed off at the insensitivity of 3 consumerist ingrates who couldn’t be at all sensitive to the fact that our parents were trying to raise us brats on a teacher’s meager salary. Welcome to lower middle class suburban American Christmas hell. It was that way in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid. It’s even worse today.

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Dad and Tippy the chihuahua.

Christmas morning was spent trying out the new bicycle, skateboard, or remote controlled flying thing (we would later call a drone) that ran for a couple of hours on giant D-cell batteries and then would invariably fail and never be used again. Probably 90% of all the gifts beneath the tree ended up in the trash within a couple months.

Mom did (and does to this day) have a love for holiday music. It was Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Mantovani. It started usually the week after Thanksgiving, around the time the big fake tree was erected in front of Maas Brothers department store at the Edison Mall in Fort Myers, our home town in Southwest Florida. And she would put it on as we all went about our holiday decorating chores: untangling the blue and gold tinsel and the big bulbed lights from the previous year, finding which bulbs were burned out, assembling the tree and placing the angel at the top. We listened to the stories each year of how we as kids smashed all the glass bulbs when we lived in California. Mom and Dad awoke to the sound of popping noises and laughter. Only a couple dowdy vintage bulbs survived the Christmas day massacre of the bulbs.

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Monsters or angels? You decide. That’s me in the foreground, my older brother Michael in back (youngest Sean is in the crib).

Mom did the holiday baking weeks before the big day and would stamp out hundreds of Christmas cookies to nibble on for weeks. We kids would help make them, rolling out the sugary dough and using the bell- and tree-shaped cookie cutters. We sprinkled the colorful sprinkles and dusted them with sugar. Decorate one, eat one, was my philosophy. Then there was Mom’s favorite: the Mexican wedding cookies, little domes rolled in powdered sugar. As a young teenager, I mastered the art of making a gingerbread house in a tropical climate. I drew up the plans on paper and then I baked the living daylights out of my gingery panels until they were inedibly crisp but strong enough to hold up the house in the humidity. I decorated and mortared the walls together with royal icing. I was obsessed with making the house more ornate and perfect than the year before.

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Christmas dinner was a banquet of mushy foods with the Butterball turkey at the center of the white formica table. For a kid it was pure pleasure. No need to chew anything or handle a knife and fork — just shovel it in with a spoon and swallow. Mom always had a bottle of André cold duck sparking light red wine at the ready…served with ice because it was Florida.

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Mom in the kitchen. “I don’t celebrate Christmas for the spiritual aspects. I celebrate it for the commercial aspects,” she once told me.

At some point though, Christmas stopped being magical. But maybe it wasn’t really a point so much as a progression, a whittling away of an illusion. I witnessed my obese ‘ho ho ho’ grandmother going blind from diabetes and a life of sweets. I saw the rage in my father’s eyes about our ingratitude. I heard some statistic about the numbers of convicted pedophiles that were hired to play Santa Claus in shopping malls.

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As a young gay boy I think I liked sitting on Santa’s lap a little too much. That’s me on the left and my brother Michael on the right who doesn’t appear to be enjoying the ride as much.

Then there was the statistic about the percentage of consumer goods that ends up in the trash, the discovery that the marshmallows in the sweet potatoes were full of high fructose corn syrup, the cookies were laden with heart-stopping hydrogenated oil, and the turkey had been raised in a cage with its beak burned off and shot full of hormones. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir it turns out, is rife with inbred homophobes. My own choral conductor, Betsy, would have temper tantrums and scream at us as we prepared for the Christmas concert, “Stop! Now sing with joy for God’s sake, this is CHRISTMAS!” as she banged her baton on the podium. Then I got chicken pox one year stranded in the Dallas airport on the way to my folks’ for Christmas. My holiday glow that year got dimmer and dimmer as my temperature rose to 104.

And as the years went on, the invitations to Christmas parties and the Christmas cards dwindled to almost zero as I declared I was not Christian and asked why I should celebrate the birth of a person I care nothing about? The guilt of giving overpowered the joy and I stopped sending any cards or buying any gifts for anyone. One year at Trader Joe’s, overwhelmed with the onslaught of Christmas everything, I complained to the manager that the Christmas music was offensive to Jews. He turned it off and I went about my grocery shopping in guilty silence. Not only did I steal everyone else’s musical pleasure, but I lied. I’m not Jewish. I delighted in telling cashiers that I don’t celebrate Christmas when they would inevitably wish me Merry Christmas after my purchase. I liked wilting their smiles. And thus on December 25th each year, the Christmas Curmudgeon was born and would declare bah humbug on all you well wishers.

Not surprisingly, as result of becoming a supreme seasonal cynic (or was I just being a realist?)  I’ve ended up spending a few Christmases alone wondering why I couldn’t shake the holiday residue. How could I make myself so miserable? Remember, this is the HAPPIEST TIME OF THE YEAR! The twinkly Christmas lights of my childhood were coiled up and thrown into the scary closet of my mind. And that’s where my Christmas spirit resides today…a burned out memory in a musty old box.

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It’s interesting being 50 and being in a relationship with someone 27. Young people by nature tend to be a bit less cynical. They smile more and are more daring about life — willing to give the wrong gift, make an imprudent impulse purchase, throw a party and invite everyone they’ve ever met. They can get excited about things that long ago ceased to thrill the rest of us geezers. This is why I like younger guys. Does anyone really want to be a cynic? Not me. I sort of can’t help it given my lethal combination of idealism, pragmatism, and perfectionism. But I don’t like being cynical, honestly. And younger people cheer me up — if I’m willing to let myself thaw a bit on the inside.

And this year I find myself thrust up against my young Chinese boyfriend’s youthful holiday glow. Chuan is not really Christian and so I’m not having to fend off a Christmas tree and matching Santa hats. But he has invited his whole family over to my apartment for Christmas Eve dinner. Now that’s really something to get excited and nervous about. He has just come out to them, revealing that Christmas Eve dinner will be served at his BOYFRIEND’s apartment. Not only will I be on trial but so will my cooking. From Western chef to Eastern mouths. Oy vey, the relatives are coming, the relatives are coming!

Scrooge set forth brining the bird the night before and roasting the vegetables and the chicken in the toaster oven in 3 batches (my apartment doesn’t have a real oven). This is my tiny 2 burner stove. On it I made a big batch of borscht, mushroom and fennel gravy for the roasted root vegetables.

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And an all time favorite — deviled eggs with smoked paprika…

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Plated up, this is what it looked like.

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And then they arrived. I was exhausted from cooking all day. But I’d say it was a success. No one really raved about my cooking, but I’ve come to understand that the Chinese are hard to please. Or maybe it’s just that they’re not particularly expressive about something when it does please them. No one walked out. No one asked me how much rent I pay. Everyone ate everything, and that would classify it as a successful dinner party with gracious guests.

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And in the end I didn’t really feel that I and my cooking were on trial. They treated me kindly and seemed to welcome me into their family, not as a marauder come to take their beloved son/brother away. What I heard were invitations…to come to the brother’s restaurant sometime and try his food, to join his mum for a vegetarian Chinese meal at her favorite place.

I accept. I’d love to.

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And speaking of spoiled rotten American brats, here’s a bunch of them at Christmas pitching tantrums because they didn’t get the gift they wanted. I would actually like to adopt the kid who liked the potato he got…

 

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